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SingStar: The Business

Mike Haigh, Kevin Mason and Dave Ranyard discuss the importance of free mics... and how their contacts made it possible

Tomorrow SingStar celebrates its fifth birthday, and to mark the occasion GamesIndustry.biz sat down for a chat with three of the people that have helped make it all happen - Mike Haigh, now development director at Sony London Studio, Kevin Mason, principle designer on SingStar, and Dave Ranyard, executive producer.

Following an exploration of the franchise's roots in part one, here in part two we investigate the business side of the game's background, and in particular how the team's contacts enabled the title to be bundled with microphones at no extra cost to the consumer.

GamesIndustry.biz Bundling mics in for free - obviously the success of Rock Band, Guitar Hero, Wii Fit and so on tells us that consumers are happy to invest in peripherals now, but that wasn't the case five years ago. Sony's a hardware company at heart, so how did developing that hardware work out - did it go hand-in-hand with the software development?
Mike Haigh

It's a really interesting point - it's completely at odds with your first perception. You're right, we're a hardware company first and foremost, but actually PlayStation is a software company, and both the camera and microphones were developed almost exclusively from within this studio.

We knew very well that when you're developing a piece of hardware that it needs to be software-led. Because if it's hardware-led, the software is a slave to the hardware, and it can't be that way - as far as the experience is concerned it needs to be tailored according to the user. So the user is the one that drives the software, and in turn that software drives the production of the hardware.

We didn't have all the frills that, if you looked at it from a hardware point of view, you might want to put on. So from the point of view of the camera, when we did EyeToy the average camera was around 1-2 megapixels, and if we'd gone down the hardware route we'd have ended up with an extremely high resolution camera - which would have been absolutely crap at doing anything to do with detecting motion, because it just wasn't fast enough. That's a small example of why things need to be software-led.

Certainly in the case of pricing, when you come to do something that you want bundled with the package, you can't afford to have expensive LEDs for the sake of it, or a higher resolution than you absolutely need, because we just wouldn't be able to afford to put it in the box.

We wanted to make sure that the consumer wasn't hit by that experience - we want the consumer to not necessarily care what the peripheral is that they use, we just want them to be able to buy it, and it to work out of the box. In order to do that you just need to give the hardware away. We're presenting an experience, and you need this - so we'll give you the hardware to make that possible.

There was a lot of work that went into manufacturing and getting costs down, and making sure that the hardware experience was completely tailored for that software experience. In doing so we struck up really good relations with a number of hardware companies during the manufacture of the EyeToy, and we just used those experiences.

As luck would have it, one of the people I knew that was manufacturing components for the camera, his father ran a factory that was making a karaoke box. Well, the microphones weren't as good as we'd have liked them, so we did a bit of work and they came on board. Because of the quantities they were supplying anyway meant that we could come in off the back of their quantity and get the price down.

We got them to work for us in a major way, and said that if we could speculate that the success of SingStar would be equal to the success of EyeToy, then you could amortise some of the costs - because the numbers were millions - and as it turned out it paid off for them.

In turn the wireless microphones were slightly higher, because there's a lot of technology in there that isn't cheap to anyone. I wouldn't even hazard a guess at the sort of price Microsoft is paying for their cordless mics, but I would say they're probably taking a hit there.

But we managed to do it - it took a little longer but I was prepared to take a bit of time to get the quality and price right, and make sure it wasn't a hit to the consumer.

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